Alexander Mackenzie (1822-1892), second prime minister of Canada (1873-1878). He succeeded Sir John Alexander Macdonald as prime minister in 1873 and was succeeded in turn by Macdonald five years later. His administration brought a brief interruption in Macdonald's program of nation-building. Scrupulously honest, Mackenzie had many virtues but was not a strong leader of a newly united Canada. He failed to cope with a severe economic depression, to consolidate his country, and to complete a transcontinental railroad. During his cautious administration, Canada marked time until Macdonald's return.
Mackenzie was born in 1822, in Logierait, Scotland, the third son of a building contractor. Educated at various schools in Perthshire, Scotland, he was apprenticed at the age of 14 to a stonemason. Because there was little work to be found in Scotland, he moved in 1842 to Kingston, Canada West (now Ontario), with only the tools of his trade. He worked hard as a journeyman builder, saved his money, and brought one brother over in 1843. His parents and five other brothers followed in 1848, the year he established a small contracting business in the town of Sarnia, in southern Ontario.
Like his family, Mackenzie was an earnest member of the Liberal Party. He and his brother Hope sought to rally their neighbors behind them. In 1852 Alexander Mackenzie became editor of a new Liberal newspaper, the Lambton Shield, in Sarnia. Hope Mackenzie sat in the provincial assembly. Although the paper soon went bankrupt, the Mackenzies grew close to George Brown, editor of the Toronto Globe and leader of the Liberal Party, also known as the Clear Grits, in Canada West. When Hope Mackenzie fell ill in 1861, Alexander took his place as the representative from Lambton County in the legislative assembly of Canada West. There his speeches were terse and a trifle sarcastic. Most of his time was taken up with doing political errands for Brown.
In 1864 a series of maneuvers brought a strange alliance between the Clear Grits and their rivals, the Conservatives. Brown joined John Alexander Macdonald in a coalition cabinet, which was formed to create the Canadian union as an independent nation. When Brown resigned after a year, Mackenzie was offered a cabinet position. He refused, and remained with Brown in the opposition party, which eventually became the Liberal Party.
Macdonald's government succeeded in forming a federation, the Dominion of Canada, in 1867. In the first election for a dominion Parliament, Mackenzie ran, and was elected to represent Lambton County. However, Brown lost his public support and his appetite for politics as well. He went to England, and in his absence, Mackenzie became temporary leader of the Liberal opposition.
With Brown gone, Mackenzie found a political associate in young Edward Blake, the new leader of the Liberals in Ontario. In the election of 1871 the Liberals won a majority in Ontario and Blake became the provincial premier. Mackenzie, representing West Middlesex County, was provincial secretary and registrar. When Blake went to England later in the year, Mackenzie became provincial treasurer and essentially governed Ontario during the time that Blake was away.
In 1872 an act favored by Mackenzie was passed, preventing members of the federal Parliament from sitting in provincial legislatures at the same time. Mackenzie resigned his provincial offices. In the 1872 federal election he again ran in Lambton and won. Because Brown still refused to return to politics, the Liberal opposition had to choose a permanent leader. Mackenzie favored the appointment of either Blake or Antoine Aimé Dorion of Québec. However, Mackenzie, who had been Brown's assistant during his entire political career, seemed like the obvious choice, and Blake persuaded him to lead the party.
Mackenzie had based his campaigns against the Conservatives on the idea of free trade. He also had attacked the cost of the railway that the Conservatives were building to the Pacific. In 1873 he was given a far more effective weapon. The Pacific Railway scandal came to light just after the election. The Liberals had already discovered that the Canadian company that was building the railway was associated with United States railroad interests. They found that Sir Hugh Allan, the company's promoter, had financed the Conservative election campaign in return for the rights to build the line. After seven days of debate Macdonald resigned.
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On November 7, 1873, the British governor-general called on Mackenzie to form a government. Mackenzie became prime minister and took charge of the ministry of public works in order to supervise the railways. The governor-general, like many others, thought Mackenzie was nothing but Brown's puppet. It is true that Mackenzie was extremely loyal to his mentors, Brown and Blake, but he showed far greater loyalty to his political ideals and to his faith in honest government, gradual reform, and free trade.
He set about forming his cabinet at once but found it difficult to get the best men in his party to serve. Blake at first refused to join the cabinet at all. When he finally agreed, he would accept only a minor post. Richard Cartwright became minister of finance when Luther Holton, a personal friend of Mackenzie's, refused to serve. Mackenzie could not even persuade Brown, who had returned and taken a seat in the Senate in 1874, to join the cabinet. Dorion, however, became minister of justice and was the representative of Québec in the government. Perhaps the best of the ministers, Dorion resigned in order to become chief justice of Québec in 1874.
The Liberals had a minority in Parliament when Mackenzie formed his ministry. Because he could not persuade enough Conservatives to join him, he dissolved Parliament in January 1874. The Liberals won the election of 1874 with their promises to give Canada an honest, vigorous, and thrifty government.
Mackenzie was an efficient administrator. He quickly introduced the much-needed reform of a secret ballot. He put the railway to rights and sent Brown to negotiate tariff concessions with the United States. Unfortunately, factors he could not control condemned much of his program to failure. Canada was entering an economic depression when he became prime minister, and when it continued, he was held responsible. In addition, he had inherited a financial policy that he could not change in the short time he was in office.
The first program to feel the economic pinch was the transcontinental railway. Mackenzie had always opposed the idea, and the company building it had been discredited by the Pacific scandal. However, British Columbia had been promised a railway, and in his cautious way he set about building it. When private capital could not be found in Canada, the government agreed to build the railway in small segments. Mackenzie also authorized a complete survey of the route. The survey was essential and later paid great dividends, but it did not satisfy western Canadians. British Columbia threatened to leave the dominion. Blake, who did not support the railway project, advised Mackenzie to abandon it. The British, however, insisted that he negotiate. When Mackenzie's settlement failed to pass the Senate, the governor-general went to British Columbia to arrange his own settlement. This interference infuriated Mackenzie, but British Columbia remained in the dominion and received an annual subsidy until the railway was built.
After the railway the most important issue facing Mackenzie was the tariff, a tax on imported goods to protect local merchants and farmers. In Mackenzie's first year as prime minister he was forced to raise the tariff from 15 percent to 17.5 percent to raise money. Pressure increased for Mackenzie to raise the tariff again, for, as the depression continued, manufacturers and farmers began to think a protective tariff might bring relief. The finance minister seemed ready to agree, but during a visit to Scotland in the summer of 1875, Mackenzie declared that the principles of free trade were “the principles of civilization.” When he returned to Canada, there was no mention of a higher tariff in the budget of 1876.
Personal characteristics also influenced Mackenzie's failure. As minister of public works he spent up to 14 hours a day on ministry business. Inevitably, he neglected the leadership of his party. His pardoning of the followers of Louis Riel in the Red River Rebellion (which brought about the creation of the province of Manitoba) infuriated many people in Ontario. His support of an act that favored prohibition was not popular in Québec. When he made Dorion a judge in 1874, he lost his only French colleague who could act as leader in Québec. Although future prime minister Wilfrid Laurier joined his cabinet in 1877, Mackenzie considered him too young for real responsibility.
To add to Mackenzie's troubles, Blake, who became minister of justice in 1875, threatened to leave the cabinet in 1876. Mackenzie pleaded with him to stay, and Blake relented and remained another year. Indeed, Blake's reform of the Canadian legal system and his establishment of the Supreme Court of Canada were the most lasting major achievements of Mackenzie's administration.
Despite the difficulties of his administration and recurring attacks of illness, Mackenzie was still confident that he could win the election of September 1878. However, the Conservatives won by a large majority and Mackenzie barely managed to keep his seat in Lambton. He resigned as prime minister but retained leadership of the Liberal Party. In 1880 he resigned as leader at the insistence of the younger Liberals, who were followers of Blake.
Partially paralyzed by a stroke after giving up the party leadership, Mackenzie continued in politics and won the seat of York East, a suburb of what is now Toronto, in the 1882 election. In the same year he published The Life and Speeches of George Brown. Although he was the director of several insurance companies, he was a poor man and his parliamentary salary was important to him. Despite being scarcely able to speak after 1884, he continued to represent York East until his death in 1892.